Category Archives: Books

Things of 2016

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Crocodile stone

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I’ve never understood the need to ceremoniously dismiss a calendar year from sight. Every December you hear the same, from so many people: this year was shit and it can fuck off. Bring on next year. Bad things happen, and people grasp at the opportunity to sweep them aside, but I considered myself above raging against an arbitrary construct wholly unrelated to the actual sources of one’s bitterness. I thought myself level-headed when it came to apportioning my annual misgivings. And then came 2016.

There was a failed overseas adventure that ended in frustration and debt. There was an assault, one that I sort of saw coming but was no less upsetting for it in the aftermath. There was a shocking death in the family, and the grief and support that followed. These three shunts spun me around and brought unfamiliar feelings to the surface. There is a thrill in learning from new experiences, for sure, and I have learned a lot: about what is really important to me, what I want to do with my time, how I respond to trauma, and how capable I am of carrying others. But the negative effects of these events linger, regardless of what they have taught me.

I am being deliberately vague here. At this early stage, I can’t articulate all of the lessons and wounds and how I have changed, other than that I know want to have kids as soon as possible. A phrase I’ve returned to again and again in the last couple of years, both in relation to my own life and to global current events, is ‘the more you know, the more you don’t know’; perhaps this is how I sweep the bad things aside.

Then there were all the jolts in the obituary pages. David Bowie. Alan Rickman. Prince. Anton Yelchin. Muhammad Ali. Leonard Cohen. George Michael. Carrie Fisher. Et cetera.

And, in June and November, the United Kingdom and the United States of America voted to turn the tide away from global citizenship and toward isolationism. They washed their hands of the various crises on their doorsteps and further afield in favour of looking out for number one — but with no clear or functional plan even to improve their own lot.

It isn’t all doom and gloom. It never is. I got a new job — after some months of trying — and so did Tara. We moved into a new flat two minutes’ walk from a Sunday fruit and veg market. I was in better touch with my parents than I have been years. Nothing was easy, but it could all have been a lot harder.

Still, as 2016 disappears over the horizon, I find myself filled with trepidation for the year to come. 2017 promises at least one great boon: I will get married. Pretty much everything else is up in the air, both at home and in the global sphere. Eighteen months ago, Tara and I upended our lives in the hope of improving them out of sight. It could be another eighteen before we manage to settle back down to Earth.

Sports & Leisure

Black Caps fan at the Basin last week. Here's hoping today's #nzvaus #cricket goes a bit better.

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There was a lot more watching than doing this year. No tramping. No indoor football. A few hikes. A few jogs, the longest stretching to an easy eight kilometres. A couple of hits at the beach with a cricket bat. I attended a full Australia vs New Zealand cricket Test and watched us get absolutely hammered. There was also the World Twenty20, which started so well and ended in disappointment. There was EURO 2016, which promised a surprise champion and delivered the worst surprise champion possible: Portugal, every neutral’s least favourite team.

The one thing I did more than any other year was swim in rivers. Around these parts, rivers are very cold in summer and icy cold in winter, and believe me, there is nothing quite like the rush of endorphins you get from immersing yourself in cold water. Back in July, at the end of the Five Mile Track south of the Wainuiomata, I swam in the Orongorongo River and it was so cold that I found myself literally unable to think after about ten seconds in the water. Survival instinct kicked in and I hauled myself back to the riverbank. There is video of this — I’m not going to show you — but I appear to have aged ten years between hitting the water and emerging from it.

Music

The solemn mood and darkly glorious lyrics made Leonard Cohen’s ‘You Want It Darker’ my song of 2016. As a species, we did in fact seem to want it darker.

As a valedictory statement, You Want It Darker (the album) was as complete as they come, rich with memorable tunes and words to sum up Cohen’s life and the times in which he left us. I group it with David Bowie’s Blackstar, which was followed, two days later, by the artist’s death, and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ Skeleton Tree, so pregnant with the aftershocks of Cave’s son plummeting from a cliff on the South Coast of England. Mortality hung heavy over this year, and in confronting death head on, these three great musicians bestowed dark gifts.

The Field brought out a new record, The Follower, and I eventually fought past its repetitiveness — normally so comforting — to find the beauty within. He is a genius. Radiohead are geniuses, too: A Moon Shaped Pool was perhaps the most cohesive album they’ve ever done, but it was also their saddest, with Thom Yorke’s previously bitter voice stepping over into resignation.

Sturgill Simpson’s A Sailor’s Guide to Earth was a tight country masterpiece accessible even to the likes of me. Two easily digestible pop albums, Kaytranada’s 99.9% and Francis and the Lights’ Farewell, Starlite!, got me tapping my feet under the desk at work and dancing around the house. And Solange’s A Seat at the Table spoke brightly and angrily for black women in America, linking the past to the dire present but still finding joy in one’s skin. (I didn’t hear Lemonade but it sounds like Solange’s superstar older sister tackled similarly weighty issues in 2016.)

My biggest new discovery of the year was Angel Olsen, whose My Woman showcased an artist reaching the peak of her considerable powers. It isn’t just that she’s good; she knows she’s good, and if you are lucky enough to see her perform in the flesh, you get the feeling she could destroy or exalt any of you with a single look. With the backing of her outstanding, blue-suited band, Olsen delivered one of the best gigs I’ve seen.

But if there was one single musical highlight I had to pick out, it would be from WOMAD, where, after walking Cathy back to the motel at about 10pm, I bounded back down the hill to the sound of Calexico filling the valley with the sweet, wistful strains of ‘Falling from the Sky’. I was alone, but I was dashing toward the light, where I would be enveloped once more in the pleasure of performance — a performance that was everything I hoped it would be and more, but still not as special as the exquisite promise of being able to hear it before I could yet see it. It was like nostalgia in real time.

Film

Film posters of 2016 Film posters of 2016

Film holds less and less importance in my life with each passing year, which is to say that where film was once my brightest, fiercest passion, it is now an essential but occasional diversion from the everyday lists of tasks. In 2016, I managed to see about 40 films I hadn’t seen before, and a solid handful of new releases that impressed me. Here we go:

45 YEARS felt like a lesson in how not to go about my impending marriage, and its haunting final shot is worth all the attention it has received. THE BIG SHORT came from nowhere and demanded my attention and admiration by being terrifically entertaining and desperately depressing. Micro-budget Wellington pic CHRONESTHESIA offered a high-concept vehicle for well-written and performed character interactions, and was one of the more enjoyable films of 2016. I relished the brutal thrills of GREEN ROOM, roared at the Warriors reference in HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE, and jigged about in my seat at SING STREET, which did teenagers the service of presenting them as real people with real problems. SPOTLIGHT was a work of outstanding focus and importance, much like the work of the reporters it chronicled; in particular, Liev Schreiber’s performance as editor Marty Baron was perfect, laden with power and prestige but never showy. No film of 2016 was sadder than TONI ERDMANN, which was billed as a comedy and made me laugh (a lot) but not without horrible cringing at the deep cracks in its characters’ lives. And YOUR NAME allowed me to bask in the distinctly Japanese state of natsukashii, which is some untranslatable combination of cherishing and yearning.

films-of-2016-3

Now, you may not believe this, and I still have doubts myself, but I think ZOOTOPIA was my favourite film of 2016. I remember blundering around Queensgate Mall one day back in February or whatever and seeing a poster for another stupid computer-animated film in which animals walk on their hind legs and crack wise. Then I went and saw it, and I found it to be funny, touching, well-plotted, visually spectacular, and thematically rich. Its subplots of political puppetry and migration/segregation seem almost prophetic in hindsight. I can’t wait to see it again.

Books

Christmas off to a good start. Both of my chief needs met.

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The only new book I read in 2016 was Can You Tolerate This? Personal Essays by Ashleigh Young. Ashleigh is a friend but she also happens to be one of the best writers in New Zealand today, although I would say that. It’s been wonderful to see more people discover her writing, which broaches difficult subjects in a way that is gentle and curious but doesn’t flinch from the hard bits. She makes no excuse for the fact that she is still figuring all this stuff out, too.

Of the 45 other books I read over the 12 months, Dylan Horrocks’ Hicksville and (in particular) Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen were a joy to after so many years of keeping meaning to getting around to reading Dylan Horrocks. Even more satisfying: I neared completion of Rupert Thomson’s oeuvre, knocking off Death of a Murderer, Katherine Carlyle, and This Party’s Got to Stop. Only The Five Gates of Hell remains unread. Thomson is my favourite author, an unclassifiable literary force whose work exists in a slightly off-kilter universe, both familiar and disorienting in the details. His talent for pithy description is pretty much unrivalled. I find myself often re-reading a sentence, looking up from the book to reflect on it, then carrying on.

From a Thomson profile a few years ago: “I do build quite a lot into the words and I’m often trying to slow the reader down”. 2016 was the year I started setting myself reading targets and greedily racing through pages with one eye on the tally, but Rupert Thomson’s writing is a reminder that the pleasures of reading are more numerous than just the numbers.

Politics

The work dishwasher has something to say about #yourmum

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After the 2014 New Zealand general election, in which the Greens and Labour got smashed by a surging, John Key-led National, I attempted to mitigate my shock by engaging the other side. I wrote a Facebook post inviting National voters to message me with their reasons for voting that way. The aim was to understand their perspective, whether I agreed with it or not, because the election had acutely demonstrated that I lived in an ideological bubble divorced from the concerns of the majority. The only response came in person, a friend, who was happy to elucidate his vote over beers. ‘Lack of a credible alternative’ was the key phrase he used. It was hard to argue with that, regardless of the whole Dirty Politics palaver.

After Brexit and the election of Donald J. Trump, I decided I needed to go deeper down the conservative route. There was a whole world of media out there that I never gave a second thought because I didn’t believe it could offer genuine facts or considered opinion. Clearly, a lot of people found that appealing in 2016, so if I wanted to understand their side better, I had to engage more directly. I watched some panel discussions on Fox News, which were invariably confusing and boring, laden as they were with impenetrable policy speak, although at least people listened to one another. I read through the top stories on Breitbart, which included a heartfelt endorsement of Trump by prominent Dutch racist Geert Wilders. And I subscribed to The Weekly Standard Podcast, on which white, middle-class men put the boot into ‘Barack Hussein Obama’ and performed backflips to find the silver linings in Trump’s repurposing of the Republican Party as his own plaything.

This broadening of heard opinions has changed my thinking somewhat. I appreciate the messages Trump voters were sold, and I understand why they voted that way, if they believed what he was saying. And even if they didn’t believe him, their desperation (in many, if not all, cases) seemed a reasonable catalyst to vote for change. The folks that actually produce the hogwash they read, though — the titles listed above, but also the cynical opportunists parlaying credulity into clicks and cash — deserve fiery contempt. I mentally pick holes in their arguments as I listen/read, throwing in the occasional profanity, and hope for some cataclysm to jolt them out of their plush comfort zone.

All this turned John Key’s resignation into a bit of an anticlimax. After eight years of complaining about the guy, I’m almost going to miss him. But we have an election coming in New Zealand in 2017, with more potential for change, and for shit-throwing from all sides. National will do what it’s been doing for years — steady hand on the tiller, can’t trust the other mob — and they will probably win again, but not without some mad interference from your Dotcoms and Morgans and whoever else decides they’ve got what it takes to be the Kiwi Trump.

All I hope is that more people vote than last time. A lower vote count helps no one.

Tech

Millennium Falcon pancake

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still get angry at things. The hinges on my pleasing little Medion laptop gave way in a minor tantrum back in July; poor bugger didn’t deserve it. If I spend any time in the kitchen at all, I am best avoided as there is a likelihood of swearing and thumping on the bench. Funny, because I love cooking. And people think I’m so calm.

The other tech note is that my social media use declined further in 2016. I remember a time when I craved likes and retweets to the extent that they effectively sustained my continued existence. Nowadays, I post whatever I feel like whenever I feel like and am thrilled if even one person interacts with it. I live in a warm cocoon of my own nonsense.

Travel

In the queue for free hours at the Prado.

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Tara and I cut our European sojourn dramatically short at the six-month mark, hurrying back to New Zealand as our finances reached into the red just in time to avoid a student loan repayment. It was devastating to give up on the dream of living and working abroad, but we consoled ourselves with the fact that we had done it before and we had tried to do it together, and this obviously wasn’t the time. We had felt a pull back to NZ ever since we left, anyway. There’s so much to love about being here.

Best new travel discovery of 2016 was Castlepoint. More specifically, the $120-a-night bach ten minutes up the coast in Sandy Bay, with its big lawn, ocean views, and soothing quiet. I can’t wait to go there again.

People

Christmas is better in the Hutt.

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2016 was the year Tara and I were engaged, all 366 days of it. We took two steps forward and one step back, over and over, in pretty much every aspect of our lives — except in our relationship. Together, we took on the enormous logistical challenge of planning a wedding, moved back to NZ, changed both of our careers, moved house, felt the earth shake, and grieved, but we kept talking and listening and hugging and have come out the other end with as strong a bond as ever. This time next year, we’ll be married. (Gosh, in a little over a month we’ll be married. Getting exciting now.)

Otherwise, apart from regular Skypes and lunch dates with my parents, and board game sessions with Tara’s family, I was more absent from the lives of those I care about it than I would prefer. Part of this is just drawing inward during a rough year. Part of it is the continued renegotiation of friendships as my live-in relationship takes precedence. Part of it is the cult of busyness, convincing myself I’m unable to go and meet people because I have too much on.

These are all excuses. I intend to be a better friend in 2017. If you’re reading this and thinking the same, let’s go for a beer sometime.

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Things of 2014

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As a child, I would often think about turning 20 in the year 2004, 30 in the year 2014, and so on. While 20 seemed within reach, I didn’t imagine I would ever actually turn 30; it seemed too distant and grown-up a number to attach to myself.

But now I am 30. I’ve breached the asymptote. And I’ve come out the other side feeling much the same. I constantly refer to myself as not being a ‘real grown-up’ or ‘proper person’ yet, perhaps because I still don’t have kids or a mortgage or a clear career path. And yet I am in my thirties, and a lot more of my thoughts are taken up with long-term planning. After all, I am sure I want kids, and a house, and a satisfying career. I just don’t feel quite ready for them yet. The itch to travel still tingles, and I expect I will scratch it before I embark wholeheartedly on any of the above legacies. Round up a few other 30-year-old New Zealanders and see how many say the same thing.

A lot of what follows is about me, but for much of it, there’s someone important beside me.

Sports & Leisure

Indoor footy remained integral to my physical well-being in 2014, as it was in 2013 and 2012. But it became one of many athletic pursuits rather than my sole half hour of proper exercise each week.

Early in our relationship, Tara explained that she used to be just as sloth-like as me and passed endless wasted hours on Reddit. She wasn’t happy, so she started hiking, tramping, and scuba diving instead, replacing idleness with a thirst for new outdoor experiences.

When you spend so much time with someone who has so much energy, that thirst will become part of your life, too, and you have a choice to reject or embrace it. After a few weekends of farewelling Tara as she headed off on another expedition in her trademark yellow cap, I embraced it. I went tramping in the Tararua Range, hiking in the Orongorongo Valley, swimming at Titahi Bay, stand-up paddle boarding at Port Nicholson, and wire-walking at Porirua, all things I would have hesitated to even attempt in the past. Now I marvel at how much the world has to offer, and I occasionally wonder how much I’ve missed over the years.

It wasn’t that I was necessarily afraid of any of these things. It was just that it all seemed to take up so much time. But all I did with that time, sunny day or no, was sit on the computer and chastise myself for not doing any writing. I’m finding that as a general rule, it’s better to be outside.

On an international scale, the success of the Black Caps (New Zealand’s national cricket team) in 2014 has been a great source of joy and even made me shake my head in amazement at times. It began with a one-day series win in January and a glorious fightback to draw the Basin Reserve Test in February, both against India. I was there for the fifth one-dayer, and I watched nearly every ball of the Basin Test, including the one Brendon McCullum dispatched to the backward point boundary to reach his triple century. Those five days were probably my favourite five days of the year for they also encompassed a super Valentine’s Day out at Wellington Zoo, a successful and sunny dinner party on the deck with Tara’s family, and an Italian dinner with Tara to celebrate six silly months together.

There was also the Football World Cup, which is always a joy. This was my favourite ‘fuck yeah’ moment.

Music

My favourite album of the year was Morning Phase by Beck — great song after great song — and my favourite 90 seconds of a song this year was the final 90 seconds of closer ‘Waking Light’.

Those 90 seconds feel like the meandering calm of Morning Phase finally breaking the shackles and bursting out into triumph — but it’s still tinged with all the uncertainty that preceded it. Morning Phase seemed dark and depressed to me at first, but with each listen, I found it more and more beautiful, even as an underlying sadness remained. Beck seems to aim for ambivalence rather than assuredness with this album. I think that’s why I like it so much.

I also enjoyed Lost in the Dream by The War On Drugs and rediscovered Floating Into The Night by Julee Cruise. I didn’t give Syro or a whole lot of other new albums enough of a go. There was a lot of music I missed, largely because I now live with someone who has different tastes in music. And music is one of many areas of life subject to renegotiation when someone moves in with you.

In 2014, Tara introduced me to songs by Auditorium, Cloud Cult, Avalanche City, Sam Cooke, Semisonic, Disney heroes and heroines, the a cappella stars of Pitch Perfect, Hanson, and some Mutton Birds albums I hadn’t previously heard. I’ve liked some of these songs, and she’s liked some of the ones I’ve played for her. Our shared command of Spotify has been an interesting and enjoyable challenge. Rewards have included butchered harmonies and spontaneous living room dancing.

Politics

We played board games while watching the NZ general election results roll in on TV, the sound muted. We shook our heads and swore repeatedly, and once the frustration faded, a week or two of disbelief set in: how are we so out of touch? I thought the Greens might bump up to 15% of the vote, and in the wake of Dirty Politics and Key’s relentless jiving, I assumed National’s vote would decrease. Instead, National romped to the biggest party vote since the start of the MMP era, and we on the left are still sitting down and having a think about it all.

My opinion is that in New Zealand, as in Australia and maybe in other parts of the world, people want strong leadership more than they want strong policy. In other words, voters want someone who will get things done, regardless of what those things are and whether they are in the voter’s own interest. The left in NZ didn’t seem to offer that.

As the dust settled, I made a vow to broaden my horizons outside the white liberal bubble of central Wellington so I have a more accurate picture of New Zealanders’ overall political sentiment. I haven’t done much about that, but I hope the Labor and Green parties have.

Film

The only film I saw twice in 2014 was GONE GIRL, largely because it was such a phenomenon that I knew multiple people who wanted to see it. That isn’t to say I didn’t like the film; I really enjoyed it, and in some respects — especially the ending — it worked a lot better than the book. It was interesting to read the book after seeing the trailer, then watch the full film after reading the book, meaning I had the actors in my head as I read but didn’t know what was going to happen. My conclusion is that Ben Affleck was perfect for the role and Rosamund Pike, who actually had to act, outshone him. And Carrie Coon outshone them both.

My favourite film of the year is tricky. There are quite a few contenders: BOYHOOD, THE TALE OF THE PRINCESS KAGUYA, VOICES FROM THE LAND, and UNDER THE SKIN. The latter was particularly memorable, one of those rare films that’s so unsettling I couldn’t shake its sounds and visions for weeks. I also really liked NOAHTHE LUNCHBOX, THE DARK HORSE, and WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS.

But I have to go with ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE, which left me buzzing with ideas and appreciation of cinematic craft. I hadn’t liked the Jim Jarmusch films I’d seen previously — they seemed too self-consciously aloof to let me in — but this was a delight in every way, from Tom Hiddleston’s centuries-old ennui to the incredible music, most of it by Jarmusch’s band SQÜRL. I didn’t think it was possible to get me engaged in a story about vampires, but ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE did it by grounding them in the real world: what it would it really be like to live for hundreds of years? How would you survive? What would you learn about life on Earth? This film answered those questions, and asked a few more. I loved it.

And then there were the losses, particularly Robin Williams and Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose greatness is now a void in cinema. Neither of them will make any more films, and both cases but especially Hoffman’s, that is a great loss to the medium.

Tech

I bought a new phone in 2014, a Motorola Moto G. It’s pretty good so far. And my main computer keeps overheating and powering off, which sometimes makes me very angry. I still get angry at inanimate objects, technology more than anything else, and it’s still embarrassing to the point of making me feel like a spoilt little kid every time.

Books

Deno started a book club in 2014, and because I like Deno and want to read more books, I joined up. So far we’ve read some interesting books and repeatedly pushed back our deadlines, which I assume is what most book clubs do.

Travel

For the first time since 2006, I spent none of the calendar year outside of New Zealand. Instead, I got to know new parts of my country — Paraparaumu, Porirua, the Rimutakas, Taranaki, the Tararuas, and more — and revisited old favourites like West Auckland’s beaches.

Travel experiences became more about the adventure itself than the destination, and more about the company than the sights (although the sights were often exceptional). Tara witnessed just about everything I witnessed, and she usually instigated the trip. She is the lead explorer in our relationship and pushes us steadily on to the next adventure as soon as the last one is over. Her family call her the Labrador, partly because she goes a bit crazy if she doesn’t go for a walk each day.

People

As I am now 30, more and more of my friends are getting married. I was even best man at a wedding — that of my oldest friend Stephen, who married Cayley in March. That was a good day.

More and more of my friends are having kids, too. I’m watching them grow up photograph by photograph, video by video, nearly always smiling and happy. Their childhoods are being edited into a selective stream of joyous firsts and daily moments of delight. That sounds a little cynical, but I think it’s a privilege to be able to see those kids at all. I would rather see them all a lot more often and get to know them as people, rather than as two-dimensional flashes of colour, but my Facebook feed is the next best thing. And their parents — my friends — are changing too. A little more weight behind their eyes, a little more openness in their smiles.

I already had a family, but in 2014, I gained another family. Cathy, Jeff, Richard, Ruth, and Kazu have all become an integral part of my life in a very short space of time. We play a lot of board games — preferably ones that involve protracted arguing and shouting, like The Resistance — and we go on walks, picnics, tramps, swims, and holidays. Here I thought you weren’t supposed to get on with your in-laws. I fear these positive relationships in a new area of my life come at the cost of my relationships with family and friends; that the time and energy I’ve used to forge new bonds is limited and needs to be doled out more carefully. Finding a better balance of time spent with people important to me is the biggest thing I have to work on in 2015.

Through it all is Tara, there at my side — or stopped behind me, more likely, to run her hands through long grass or shift a snail from the pavement to the bushes. She adds so much colour to my world and somehow lightens each of my steps — into cold river water, into the vicious slope of another hill, or into the woods with twenty kilograms on my back. She is the constant source of love and intellectual stimulation that sustains me. With Tara, more than in any other part of my life, I am lucky.

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Opening My Eyes Further: Graphic Novels, Comics, and Me

Upon Ed’s recommendation, I’ve been reading a lot of graphic novels lately – or comics, I’m not sure which. They’ve all been non-fiction, so are they still graphic novels? I’m gonna go with graphic novels because of their long-form nature – when I see the word ‘comic’, I think first of strips in the newspaper, like Peanuts and Garfield.

They’ve been quite a revelation, these graphic novels. My reading hasn’t just been changed by the addition of this bright new medium; it’s been broadened and given new life. I hope you’ll bear with me while I cast my eye back a little to illustrate how this new enthusiasm fits into the context of my life.

L-R: Sad, Unfunny

It’s funny that I should associate Peanuts and Garfield with the newspaper, because when I was a kid, I borrowed and read all the Peanuts and Garfield books in Tokoroa Public Library several times over. I never read them in the newspaper. I even bought a few cheap Peanuts collections with my allowance, books that are now long gone. (I never bought any Garfield, and I’m glad now that I didn’t because reading Garfield as an adult has been one of the most jarring revisitations to childhood I’ve had. Like, did I really used to laugh at this?)

More than Peanuts and Garfield, I read Tintin and Asterix. I think Tintin was my first exposure to comics. On about my seventh or eighth birthday, a compendium of the three Tintin books – Tintin in America, Cigars of the Pharaoh, and The Blue Lotus – was given to me by parents, and I was soon reading each of the stories over and over. I already loved reading, and read voraciously, but Tintin allowed me to escape into a world I could literally see, not just imagine.

The following year, I was given another compendium containing The Calculus Affair, The Red Sea Sharks, and Tintin in Tibet. I remember being moved by Tintin’s relationship with Chang, the Chinese boy he saves from the river in The Blue Lotus, and their tearful reunion in Tintin in Tibet. Because I read them all so many times – possibly into the hundreds – I can also a remember a number of specific images, like Haddock’s curled-up beard when Calculus lights his microfilms on Haddock’s pipe, or the final ‘shot’ of Tintin in Tibet, in which the yeti looks longingly across the plain at the departing travellers.

Tintin in Tibet | Tintin au Tibet | Yeti | Himalayas

Tintin is like a series of shots, a storyboard for a film. I still haven’t seen anyone convey movement in a static image as well as Hergé could. The stories are often as full of plot holes as the dumbest Hollywood blockbusters, but the drawings themselves are so memorable. Pretty good cast of characters, too.

As a kid, when talking with friends, I was adamant that Tintin was not a ‘comic’ but a ‘cartoon’, which to me implied its status as serious art. There began my prejudice against comics in general, or what I narrowmindedly thought of as comics.

Asterix, meanwhile, has followed me into adult life more than anything else I read in childhood. I liked Asterix in those days but preferred the fast-paced action and earnestness of the Tintin books. When I read through the entire Asterix series as an adult, however, I marvelled constantly at all the wordplay that had flown way over my head years before. What’s more, all this wordplay was developed twice – once in French by Goscinny, and again in English by those translation wizards Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge. I’ve never read the French editions of Asterix but someday, if my French ever gets good enough, I’d love to do so.

Obelix speeds up the works | Asterix in SwitzerlandI do remember the images of Asterix well, too, especially Uderzo’s broadly demonstrative facial expressions. The bit where the major-domo tastes Asterix and Obelix’s stew in Asterix and the Laurel Wreath ALWAYS cracks me up, as does the bit in Asterix in Switzerland where Obelix tries to ‘speed up the works, by Toutatis’ and immediately gets wasted drunk. No doubt there are others out there who can recall it in an instant too.

After going through Asterix again – this was about five years ago – I didn’t seek out any more comics. The term ‘graphic novel’, which came up with relative frequency in conversation with various friends and family members, was still off-putting to me: it conjured visions of dark sci-fi drawings with lots of blood and exclamation marks. No real reason for that, of course. It was my way of closing my mind off to them, perhaps so I could keep the world a little more manageable. It’s bad enough thinking of all the films you want to someday see, let alone all the books you want to read.

I also saw the film version of Watchmen and hated it. After hearing so much about the supposed genius of the graphic novel, the terribleness of the film seemed to validate my preconceptions.

120 Days of Simon | Simon GardenforsThen, a few months ago, Ed got The 120 Days of Simon out from the library. It was really quite vacuous: a man I would hate in real life travels around Sweden having lots of sex and taking lots of drugs, then tells his story through cartoonish illustrations and unexceptional (though relatable) dialogue. To my surprise, I raced through it in an hour, thoroughly entertained. I guess I’m as voyeuristic as the next guy.

Afterwards, the sense of satisfaction at reading a 400-plus-page book in such a short space of time was something I hadn’t felt before. It was a minor epiphany: graphic novels are a way of reading many books without using up all my waking hours! I decided to seek out more.

Next, Ed recommended the work of Guy Delisle, a Canadian animator who has written graphic novel travelogues about his time in various unusual locations around the world. I started with Shenzhen, which was very good, and then went on to Pyongyang, which was not as good but fascinating just for the fact that it was about the everyday life of a foreigner in North Korea.

Shenzhen | Guy Delisle | Comics | Graphic Novel from China

When I look back on reading those two Delisle books, I can’t remember many of the images. My brain is wired for language, it seems, so I focused on the dialogue and narration much more than the pictures. Not surprisingly, the drawings I remember most clearly are the ones that were unaccompanied by English words, such as a hilarious scene in which a Chinese man gets into a lift with Delisle and bellows into his ringing phone before realising he hasn’t pressed the button to answer it. I wonder if this means my brain can only properly process one form of input at a time, in this case either pictures or words. I’ll bet it’s possible to train your brain to do both.

Delisle has done quite a bit more than those two books, including some well-reviewed work on Burma and Jerusalem, but I wanted to get into some classics of the genre first. A little research brought two titles quickly to the surface: Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi and Maus by Art Spiegelman. Persepolis is the story of the artist – an Iranian woman – growing up in her post-revolution homeland, while Maus is the story of the artist’s father surviving the Holocaust in Poland and Germany. Both are widely hailed as exceptional works of art in any genre – Maus won a Pulitzer – and as essential reading for any graphic novel enthusiast.

I decided to start with Persepolis because I’ve been very interested in Iran lately. I want to get a broader picture of Iran than what we get from most news reports, which show virtually nothing beyond a tyrannical government and a faceless, obedient proletariat. Persepolis was perfect because Satrapi was a woman (i.e. not a man with a beard) from a well-off but somewhat dissident family, which couldn’t be much further from the fundamentalist Islamists I had previously pictured when I thought of Iran.

Persepolis | Marjane Satrapi

It was a brilliant memoir, full of internal conflict as Satrapi wrestled with her love for a homeland that felt less and less like home. She illustrated the dynamics in her family clearly, and with admirable and honest empathy for all the times she drove her parents crazy. She also didn’t shy away from her passionate views on human rights, the veil, censorship – the kinds of things that artists in Iran have been jailed for. I was entertained by her sense of humour and enlightened by her bitter insights. Persepolis enriched me as a person. It also got me the email address of a PhD architecture candidate from Iran, who was handing out questionnaires in Civic Square one afternoon and saw me reading it. A golden coincidence.

As it was with Delisle, I don’t remember many of Satrapi’s images. Most of the time I would skim across the top of each frame, where the majority of the dialogue and narration was placed, and more or less ignore the illustrations. Perhaps the skill of taking both text and images in at once will develop with experience – or perhaps it’s just that those details you missed can be revealed on subsequent readings, just like with any other book.

The Complete Maus cover | Art Speigelman | Maus CD-ROM

Then came Maus, which is the reason for writing all this. Maus is purely extraordinary. Schindler’s List used to be the work of art I would immediately think of when moved to consider the Holocaust for one reason or another; henceforth, it shall be Maus. Here are some of the reasons why:

  • The central character is compelling. He’s racist, cantankerous, and miserly, as well as being chivalrous, resourceful, and very intelligent. He speaks in a grammatically imperfect English – “one of the boys what we were in the attic together, talked over to the guard” – which builds up a distinctive voice in your head as you read it. He loves and loses almost everything.
  • Spiegelman doesn’t shy away from the most horrendous aspects of the Holocaust. He illustrates so many ways to die in just the level of detail that you won’t be put off reading any further but won’t forget any of it, either.
  • With Maus, I DID remember a lot of the images afterwards. In fact, I’d seen some of them before: in a third form social studies exam, more than half of my life ago, we were asked to read a page from Maus and then answer questions about it. (I had no idea what it was at the time, of course.) When I came to that page in the book, I recognised it immediately. I think this is a testament to Spiegelman’s straightforward approach to detail in his drawings, which aims to tell the story without too many lines getting in the way. He also employs the simple visual metaphor of drawing each race as a different animal – Jews as mice, Poles as pigs, Germans as cats – to help embed those images.
  • The story is fundamentally about one man’s experience, but that narrower focus allows for a richness in detail that broader works wouldn’t have time for. In sticking to his dad’s story in this way, Spiegelman ends up speaking directly to people’s individual experience of the Holocaust, which is much easier to relate to than a history lesson. The fact that his dad’s life intersected with so many others helps, too, as they move in and out of the narrative. You get a sense of the staggering numbers of lives involved – on all sides.

On the back cover of this edition of Maus, there was a quote from the Washington Post: “impossible to describe accurately, and impossible to achieve in any medium but comics”. The latter part seems very true to me: it’s a perfect marriage of illustration and language, both of which are essential to the way the story is told. The narration allows you into the characters’ heads so you can see the illustrations on the page from their perspective as well as your own. And because it’s a printed page, rather than a moving image on a screen for example, you can linger on a particularly compelling image for as long as you wish.

Maus | Reality vs Comics | Art Spiegelman

As for the ‘impossible to describe accurately’ part, that’s obviously an exaggeration, but I think the point is that it’s considerably more valuable to read Maus in its entirety than it is to skim over its Wikipedia page. It was, for me, an incredibly moving and inspiring experience, and I cried a little as I read the last page. It’s good to know I’m not so caught up in my own scattered thoughts that I can’t be moved to tears any more.

I notice that something common to all the graphic novels I’ve read so far is that they are memoirs, so maybe my enthusiasm is just as much for the confessional nature of memoir writing as it is for the fact that they’re in illustrated form. Perhaps it’s related to the fact that I’ve long felt a deeper affinity with film than with words on the page, and I hardly watch films nowadays compared to the amount I read, and the graphic novel is a happy middle ground between the two that I find doubly satisfying. Maybe graphic novels remind me of the exhilaration I once felt reading Tintin, how I could blast through a book and be entertained for half an hour – a kind of Freudian link to some of the most purely content moments of my childhood.

Or, maybe I’ve just lucked into beginning the genre with its most broadly appealing work. Whatever the case, graphic novels – comics – cartoons – whatever – are a legitimate art form and I am thrilled to have finally discovered them.

As mentioned before, graphic novels are not eating into any of my other reading. They’ve simply added more time and more discernment to my reading habits. I’ve learned that my brain can switch from one printed story to another, just as it can switch from longform journalism article to another, or from one music album to another, or from one internal monologue to another. What graphic novels are eating into is my time spent watching Youtube videos and liking things on Facebook, and I’m not complaining about that.

Marjane Satrapi on Facebook

Next will be the work of Joe Sacco, who was once featured in The Caravan and has been widely acclaimed for graphic novels about turmoil-stricken places like Palestine and Bosnia. After that, maybe I’ll try and break down another the wall to another consciously overlooked writing genre. Poetry, probably.

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In praise of Roger Ebert

'Life Itself' by Roger Ebert, on release this week

“But now it’s getting late, which means he has his own work to do. Chaz heads off to bed. Millie, for the moment, hasn’t been seized by night terrors, and the brownstone is quiet and nearly dark. Just the lamp is lit beside his chair. He leans back. He streams Radio Caroline — the formerly pirate radio station — and he begins to write. Everything fades out but the words. They appear quickly. Perfect sentences, artful sentences, illuminating sentences come out of him at a ridiculous, enviable pace, his fingers sometimes struggling to keep up.”
-‘Roger Ebert: The Essential Man’, by Chris Jones, Esquire, March 2010

Roger Ebert, more than anyone else, is the reason why I wanted to be a writer. I think most of us have an initial reference point from whence our passions arose, like a car enthusiast’s formative obsession with the 1961 Lincoln Continental convertible or a young swimmer watching Michael Phelps sweep eight golds at the Olympics. I write because I have always written, since I was a small child, but I take my inspiration from Ebert above all others. His writing is honest, principled, informative and articulate, always entertaining, never boring.

When I first started this blog on Blogspot back in 2004, it was to practise writing film reviews, and I said in the first entry (since deleted, time wasn’t kind to those words) that I hoped I would one day be Ebert. I hadn’t actually been reading him for very long at that point – maybe a year or so at most – but he’d already become the standard to which I aspired, for reasons I’ll attempt to put into words further down the page. It was my plan to write reviews of most of the films I saw in an effort to get better at watching them, but my bigger hope was that I would at least become a better writer, if not a successful one.

Over time I’ve written less and less about film, and taken on a wide range of other writing influences. To my great surprise, it is India that has given me the inspiration, impetus and support to be a bit more successful as a writer, and not film. However, I’ve continued to read Ebert – who in fact has also written less and less about film, proportionally at least. In addition to the weekly film reviews he’s been filing regularly for over 40 years, and the other writing he’s compiled in the form of interviews, features and books, Ebert now has a blog, too. He writes on many subjects besides film, most of them aspects of his colourful life Every entry is a joy to savour. The blog was the main reason behind his winning the 2010 Webby Award for Person of the Year – not only for the quality of the blog entries he posts but also for the quality and depth in the comments he receives, which are sometimes even more fascinating than the entries themselves.

The definition of a good writer is elusive, and likely subjective. The standard of one’s readers, like the myriad folks who comment on Ebert’s blog, might be a pretty good one. But a definition that appeals to me is this: a good writer articulates thoughts in ways the reader might not have arrived at on their own. Even if they are thoughts with which the reader strongly disagrees, the writing itself can still be compelling in the hands of a vivid wordsmith. Take, for example, Arundhati Roy’s work in recent years, which can be as misguided as it is literary. On the other hand, saying what a lot of people are thinking can be even harder; one has to work the words on the page into a form that somehow impacts on a reader who agrees with them before he or she even reads them.

With Ebert, whether I completely disagree with him, completely agree or am ambivalent (I usually agree), there is always something new to discover in his words. Perhaps some film fact I never knew, or the name of a new actor to watch; most often, it is the sentences themselves that offer the greatest delight. They frequently surprise me, flicking a ‘how did he do that?’ switch in my head.

I find Ebert’s words returning to me at unexpected moments as a way of articulating what I see before me, or to offer something of value to a conversation with someone else. Ebert’s words are often so tightly formed that they sometimes seem to have always existed, like he plucked them from the sky and set them before me. And his words become part of me even as I read them.

After decades of getting those words in small chunks (though nowadays, with his blog and Twitter and Facebook etc, those chunks arrive more frequently), now we have Roger Ebert’s memoir ‘Life Itself’. Thousands upon thousands of those words, all arriving at once, and I am certain they will be just as much a joy. Thank you, Mr Ebert, for being such an inspiration.

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Book Review: ‘Henna for the Broken-Hearted’ by Sharell Cook

'Henna for the Broken-Hearted' by Sharell Cook, 2011 (Pan Macmillan)

One of my first Inside the Bloggers Studio interviewees was Sharell Cook of ‘Diary of a White Indian Housewife’. Since then, I’ve been lucky enough to meet Sharell and her husband in Mumbai and even more lucky to count them both as friends.

It’s as a friend that I write this post full of pride for Sharell, because she is finally a published author. ‘Henna for the Broken-Hearted’ hit the shelves in Australia a week or so ago, and it’s great to see Sharell’s straightforwardly elegant prose gracing the pages of a real live book, not just on the computer screen. And while I’ll refer to her in the first person throughout this review (we are on first name terms, after all), I won’t be biased. Well, not too biased. I hope.

The book is closely tied to the blog Sharell has written for the past few years. ‘Henna for the Broken-Hearted’ tells her story of making an unexpected transition from Australia to India, finding love and a chief purpose in life – writing – along the way. It all sounds very ‘Eat Pray Love’, especially with a title like ‘Henna for the Broken-Hearted’, but this book is much better written, more informative and more resonant than Elizabeth Gilbert’s me-me-me-memoir. The title even makes sense once you read the introduction, linking the slow reveal of henna designs as they are painted to the unfurling of meaning in one’s own life.

The book follows Sharell through heartbreak in Australia, volunteer work in Kolkata, falling in love with an Indian man and – after some eye-opening experiences in the beach town of Varkala and Himalayan village Manali – eventually settling in Mumbai as an Indian housewife. If you’ve been following Sharell’s blog for a long time, a lot of this will sound quite familiar, but the facts are presented in ‘Henna for the Broken-Hearted’ in a longer and more cohesive form. Rather than coming across as a series of connected vignettes, the book actually feels a book, as in a single story that we follow from the first page to the last.

However, an interesting sense I get from the book is that rather than having a traditional ‘ending’, ‘Henna for the Broken-Hearted’ gives a clear sense that Sharell’s life went on beyond the confines of its pages. We’re dropped into Sharell’s life for a few years, privy to a period of incredible upheaval, but we know that the end is not actually The End. Sharell makes no claim to understand everything about India, married life, or even about herself, and we can feel that the learning continues after the last page. I, for one, will be clamouring for a sequel.

What ‘Henna for the Broken-Hearted’ really offers, though, is an honest new voice. I’ve always found Sharell to write on just about any subject with fundamental truth and honesty, but without compromising on elegance. I think that’s what sets the book apart from most transitional stories. There are no attempts to trick the reader by writing floridly around a point; instead, Sharell tells it exactly like it happened, warts and all, and she does so in a way that illuminates the deeper truths behind her experiences – truths many of us will be able to relate to. In her honesty, Sharell transcends simply narrating her own experience and speaks to all of us.

Probably the strongest section of the book is when Sharell is slowly getting to grips with Kolkata and falling in love with her husband-to-be. Their courtship is incredibly sweet and romantic, a real-life fairytale, but tempered with the reality of Sharell’s freshly broken heart and the more immediate challenge of dealing with daily life in India. She gives a good sense of what it feels like to drop yourself in such a foreign environment, and what the adaptation process is like. It’s slow, and there’s no single ‘eureka’ moment of understanding. If you put your mind to it, though, there are many small understandings along the way, each adding to a slowly growing knowledge and understanding of one’s surroundings. This is what happens to Sharell the longer she spends in India, and it’s what happened to me too.

On the other hand, I do have a criticism: the book is too short. Yes, I know it sounds like I’m pandering, but there were often moments where I wanted more detail about a particular event, like some of her experiences in Varkala and Manali. Still, the book is about a transformative process over a number of years, not so much the small details. Cramming those years into 300 pages without losing all sense of perspective is an admirable feat, and anyway, there are plenty of small details to flesh out the story and make it more real.

I recommend ‘Henna for the Broken-Hearted’. It certainly isn’t for everyone, particularly folks who have no interest in India or in alternative healing therapies (which also feature at certain points of the book). However, those with an interest in transitional stories, cross-cultural experiences and the essence of true love – and figuring what that means – will find it fascinating.

Congratulations, Sharell. Here’s to many more!

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Imprints: 127 Hours / Cee-Lo Green / Phoenix / CocoRosie

127 Hours (2010, dir. Danny Boyle): Another work of style with just enough substance from Boyle. You probably know by now that it’s a true story about a dude who gets his arm trapped under a rock in a remote canyon, and is faced with a horrible choice. James Franco is good, the film is decent and certainly uplifting, but I’d class it as merely an above-average time-passer. (W) Worth a Look.

Cee-Lo Green – The Lady Killer (2010): Could never live up to my expectations after seeing one of the greatest videos of the years, which features his ‘Fuck You’ to delightful effect, but this is a listenable combination of throwback to Motown-era charm and Gnarls Barkley-ish chopped-clean production. Bright Lights, Bigger City is the best walking or driving song in a while. (W) Worth a Look.

Phoenix – Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix (2009): I’m still so enraptured at the way track 4, ‘Love Like A Sunset’, was used in Somewhere that when I try to listen to this album, I can barely get past it without hitting repeat. OK, the other songs are good, some of them very good, and I really like this album, and you should listen to it. ‘Love Like A Sunset’ is just ridiculously epic. (R) Recommended.

CocoRosie – La maison de mon rêve (2004): First heard of CocoRosie when they performed the best song of the 00s live with Quinn Walker, but only picked up on their debut album lately – it’s really good, discordant at first glance but quickly altering the way I interact with the world around me. The use of a Godzilla toy’s roar on opener Terrible Angels is a perfect example of their experimental, carefree sound. Don’t know what the rest of their output is like but if it’s the same feeling with better production values, sign me up. (R) Recommended.

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Film Review: ‘Never Let Me Go’ (2010)

IMDb / Ebert / Hoberman
Starring Andrew Garfield, Keira Knightley and Carey Mulligan
Written by Alex Garland
Based on the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro
Directed by Mark Romanek


Rating: C (Careful)

Book-to-film adaptations are always a challenge. They’re a challenge for filmmakers trying to translate the feel of the written word for the screen, and they’re a challenge for audiences already enraptured with the book to accept with open minds.

Here’s a case in point. I love Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. I read it in 2007, a couple of months into my stay in Japan, and it completely blew me away. It was a brilliant idea, crafted into a grand and brilliant story, and written in an endearing matter-of-fact style through the voice of a devastatingly sweet and immature narrator. For all its superficial coldness, the depth of feeling and heart contained in its simple language gave rise to such massive potential for an emotional response, and that response would take you down as many rabbit holes as you let it. I felt like I understood people, and our potential as humans, better after reading this novel.

Of course it was always going to be made into a film. How could it not? All of the elements were there: a high-concept idea, a love triangle, Oscar-baiting pathos and (most importantly) a recognisable and well-established brand name. Surely the film would write itself?

Well, it didn’t. In Alex Garland, he of novels The Beach and Tesseract as well as the script for Danny Boyle’s beautifully misguided Sunshine, the production pulled in a very savvy and thoughtful writer – and I’m sorry to say that he went the wrong route. That matter-of-fact prose I mentioned earlier could never directly manifest on the screen, but Garland, bless him, tries his damnedest. What came across as innocence in the book translates to coldness and a kind of dull, grey superficiality on the screen.

As a result, some very well-intentioned and capable performers flounder before our eyes. Save Mulligan’s near-constant sad, tilted smirk and Knightley’s frequently insane toothy grin, all three are surprisingly affecting. Or at least they would be if they weren’t lumbered with overly direct dialogue, a pace that never flows, and some of the most ridiculous wigs and outfits this side of Mamma Mia! Mulligan in particular is becoming one of the most enigmatic presences on cinema screens, with her pixie face concealing a gravelly, Shakespearean voice. But her Kathy isn’t the limited childlike wonder of the book.

To be fair, any sort of comparison with Ishiguro’s prose is unreasonable. I can only think of a few films which have affected me so deeply. Still, I’m a firm believer that the best book-to-film adaptations leave the feeling of the book behind and concentrate on telling a story on screen well – even if it’s a story that differs considerably from that of the book, if only in the telling. Examples: Jeunet’s A Very Long Engagement; Anderson’s There Will Be Blood; Pawlikowski’s My Summer Of Love. Romanek’s proved himself to be quite a talent with his earlier One Hour Photo, but he and Garland would’ve done themselves a favour by watching those three films as a kind of Adaptations 101.

I am, of course, biased, and would love to hear from anyone who hasn’t read the book. A follower on Twitter, @PapushiSun, hasn’t: “I haven’t watched another film that made me so angry in a long time. People don’t behave like that, I kept thinking.” It didn’t stir the same frustration in me, but I have to agree that the motivation for much of the characters’ behaviour was unclear, or – worse – when it was revealed, I just didn’t really care.

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